Tucker Carlson is in the headlines this week for lobbing serious misconduct claims at the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA, he said on his show, is spying on him in an attempt to force his show off the air. His accusation led to an unusual public response from the NSA, which said his allegations were “untrue” and that Carlson “has never been an intelligence target of the Agency and the NSA has never had any plans to try to take his program off the air.” Despite the lack of evidence – Carlson has only cited an anonymous government “whistleblower source” — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called on the House Intelligence Committee to investigate his claims.

As the story continues to generate attention and stoke the public’s anger, it provides a textbook example of the disinformation techniques that fuel conspiracy theories – and illustrate what makes them so dangerous.

According to Carlson’s monologue,

It’s not just political protesters the government is spying on. Yesterday we heard from a whistleblower in the US government that the NSA, the National Security Agency, is monitoring our electronic communications and is planning to leak them in an attempt to take this show off the air. Now that’s a shocking claim and ordinarily we’d be skeptical of them. It’s illegal for the NSA to spy on American citizens. The whistleblower, who is in a position to know, repeated back to us information about a story that we are working on that could only have come directly from my texts and emails. There’s no other possible source for that information, period. The NSA captured that information without our knowledge and did it for political reasons. The Biden administration is spying on us, we have confirmed that. … Only Congress can force transparency on the intelligence agencies and they should do that immediately. Spying on opposition journalists is incompatible with democracy. If they’re doing it to us, and again they are definitely doing it us, they are almost certainly doing it to others. This is scary, and we need to stop it right away.

NSA has long been a target of civil liberties advocates concerned about post-9/11 intelligence-gathering and the Snowden revelations. More recently, it’s become a bogeyman for deep-state conspiracy theorists, and it has been under fire from the right-leaning viewers that make up Carlson’s core demographic ever since Donald Trump alleged, without evidence, that the Obama administration had his “wires tapped.”

(For those who would argue back, “but Carter Page…” it’s important to note that the court-authorized surveillance of Page commenced after the Trump campaign had publicly declared that he was no longer associated with it. And for those who would argue, “but Michael Flynn…,” it’s important to note that Flynn’s communications were intercepted incidentally as he talked several times with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a foreign representative of an adversarial foreign government. Any intelligence professional – and certainly the former head of an intelligence agency, such as Flynn – should have expected such communications might be under U.S. government surveillance. That said, this issue of incidental interception is an important one for understanding the Carlson allegations as well – more on that, below.)

Of course, others have claimed NSA malfeasance; some of these claims are baseless, and some raise serious questions about compliance errors or point to important policy disagreements about the propriety of various intelligence collection programs. So, what makes Carlson’s claims newsworthy? First, the stature of the spokesman: Carlson is a leading cable program host, with nearly 3 million viewers. He’s highly influential within conservative political circles, both among politicians and voters. When someone with Carlson’s platform claims to have been targeted by NSA, that’s a big deal – and one that the U.S. Intelligence Community and the U.S. government are likely to take seriously, even if his lawyers have argued before that you can’t believe what he says on air.

Second, the nature of Carlson’s claims builds on longstanding concerns about government surveillance of political opponents, as well as recent news about government collection of information relating to journalists. In this instance, Carlson’s claims that he’s been targeted for political reasons or because of his journalistic activities appear to be red herrings, but – like all effective disinformation campaigns – they build on nuggets of potential truth and speak to deep-seated fears. They also, like all enduring conspiracy theories, rest on claims that, by their nature, may be almost impossible to thoroughly disprove.

The U.S. Intelligence Community’s reputation has been marred throughout its history with instances of overreach in three key areas: spying on Americans, spying on journalists, and politically motivated spying. During the Watergate era, the IC faced a watershed moment when a newly established Senate committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) issued a lengthy, multi-volume report detailing the ways in which the U.S. intelligence apparatus had been used by presidents of both major parties to spy on their political opponents and to investigate Americans engaged in anti-war protests and social justice movements.

Since then, every claim of intrusive government spying has been – not surprisingly, and not inappropriately – seen through the lens of what’s possible when the government overreaches. These concerns aren’t solely historical ones. When it comes to spying on Americans, the post-9/11 collection of bulk telephone metadata by the NSA, under a program that has since been discontinued, has underpinned a regular public rhetoric of criticisms that NSA engages in “dragnet” collection. With respect to politically motivated spying, the recent claims by then-candidate Trump have proven to be largely baseless (both Page and Flynn, above, were engaged in activity that set off alarm bells in the counterintelligence world); but many critics have raised concerns that the Trump Justice Department was engaging in politically motivated investigations into the administration’s political foes. Recent revelations that the Trump administration sought phone records of journalists, lawmakers, and their families, ostensibly in an effort to investigate potential leaks of classified information, have only heightened those concerns and led to a new set of congressional investigations.

Against this backdrop, it’s no wonder that Carlson’s monologue went straight to two points: a conclusory (and evidence-free) statement that “the Biden administration is spying on us,” coupled with a call to action, effectively telling viewers that: You should be afraid.

Within hours after Carlson made his on-air claims, NSA issued a flat denial:

This is a rare step for an agency that’s frequently reticent in its public comments. (For years, it was known – only semi-tongue-in-cheek – as “No Such Agency.”) And yet, it’s not surprising NSA might want to clear its name, and hope that a firm denial would make a dent in the story. Did it work? Not surprisingly, no. That very night, Carlson launched into another monologue that purported to debunk the denial:

This person had details from my emails that no one else could have known. … the NSA is chartered to spy on foreigners, not on Americans, that’s illegal. Yet the NSA routinely spies on Americans – millions of Americans, and sometimes it does it for political reasons, and everyone knows this, everyone, including sitting members of the intel committees. In Washington this is just considered fine. But it’s not fine, it is dangerous and its wrong. Some faceless hack in a powerful government spy agency decides he doesn’t like what you think so he’s going to hurt you and there’s nothing you can do about it? That could happen to you.

Carlson’s second monologue, like his first, was riddled with factual distortions. But, from the perspective of disinformation operations, the facts are secondary. The primary point is that Carlson was scoring a major win: By this time, every major news outlet in the country was posting updates on the story. And the distortions were embedded throughout the narrative that Carlson’s monologues conveyed.

The Conditions That Allow Disinformation to Thrive

So where do the classic set of disinformation operations techniques fit in? First, like all effective disinformation campaigns, the claim rests on a kernel of very real concerns.

Second, the claim itself has no reliable source. It relies on a non-verifiable, generic “whistleblower in the US government.” Carlson’s purported “proof” is that the information provided could have come from no other source than his own communications. That may be true – but that doesn’t mean that the information was obtained by “monitoring” his communications. The information could have been provided by someone who saw the communications – from the recipient, or from someone close to that person – and leaked or tipped to the government. It also could have come from incidental collection that wasn’t specifically aimed at him – more on that, below.

Third, the nature of the claim fits squarely within the disinformation adage that “If it enrages, it engages.” (This is equally true online, on tv, and in print. It’s an extension of the old adage in journalism that “if it bleeds, it leads.”) Research shows we respond most strongly to stories that cause anger or fear, and Carlson’s claim that NSA – an agency with significant technical capability, a mixed public reputation, and whose activities are, by necessity, secret – is engaged in politically motivated spying on a prominent American journalist has something to anger or worry everyone from civil libertarians to conservative Republicans and progressive democrats alike.

Fourth, when NSA issued an unequivocal denial, Carlson moved the goalposts. In his second show on this topic, Carlson said he tried to reach NSA Director Paul Nakasone, a 4-star general and Trump appointee who Carlson inaccurately characterized as “highly political left-wing” partisan. Carlson wasn’t satisfied with the response. “NSA has read my private emails without my permission. Period,” he said, “That’s what we said. NSA’s statement doesn’t deny that. Did the Biden admin read my personal emails? That’s the question we asked.” He had pivoted from NSA “monitoring” his communications and “spying on us” (which, in intel-speak, is “targeting”) to declaring on air the next night that just because NSA denied “targeting” him didn’t mean it wasn’t intercepting his emails.

Here, it’s worth noting that just moving the goalposts is, by itself, a classic disinformation technique. Carlson made a claim; NSA denied it using his own quoted words; and then he claimed that the denial was a non-denial because NSA’s statement didn’t entirely cover his new framing of the false claim.

This is where it gets really interesting: Because of the way that NSA surveillance authorities and restrictions operate, Carlson has now moved his allegations into the territory where all conspiracy theories thrive: the land of the unknowable, of things that can’t be definitively proven as being impossible.

To understand why that’s the case, it helps to understand some basics of NSA surveillance – and Carlson, who presumably has a wealth of fact-checking resources at this disposal – may be anticipating that neither his viewers nor most other people will know enough, or care enough, about the finer points to recognize the distinctions. (This appeared to be the case when Trump made similar claims.)

But, the basics are as follows: Carlson’s repeated assertion that it’s “illegal” for the NSA to spy on Americans is untrue. What is true is that, with very narrow exceptions (like emergencies), NSA may only intentionally collect the communications of U.S. persons if it has an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), and to get such an order generally requires that the government show probable cause to believe that the U.S. person is an agent of a foreign power.

NSA has already said that it isn’t targeting Carlson, so that means there’s no FISC order. Further, the statute prohibits what intelligence officials refer to as “reverse targeting” of U.S. persons – i.e., targeting someone else (such as a non-U.S. person outside the United States) for the surreptitious purpose of collecting the communications of a U.S. person. When NSA says there’s no targeting, that inherently also means there is no reverse targeting – because reverse targeting is, by definition, improper. (If NSA’s goal is to target a U.S. person, they have to go back to step one and assess whether there’s probable cause to believe the individual is an agent of a foreign power, and then go through an interagency coordination process, including Department of Justice review, and submit an application to the FISC requesting a court order to do so.)

Carlson then says, well they’re collecting my communications – which is a different allegation than monitoring him. But NSA can’t disprove this assertion without engaging in the very misconduct that Carlson is accusing it of.

NSA’s protections (minimization procedures, internal and external oversight, etc.) apply when data is collected, processed, queried, and disseminated. So just like NSA can’t target Carlson’s communications without authorization, NSA analysts can’t search NSA databases looking for his communications without authorization.

Is it theoretically possible that somewhere in some NSA database there is some scrap of communication between Carlson and someone who is a legitimate foreign intelligence target of the U.S. government? Of course. Whenever a target’s communications are collected, that collection can include a narrow slice of a non-target’s communications – a fact that Congress has long recognized and specifically authorized. To illustrate how this works, if the IC is monitoring the communications of a hypothetical intelligence target, “Target A,” then the IC’s collection might allow it to scoop up a wide range of Target A’s communications. If Target A were exchanging texts or emails with Carlson, then the IC might also gather a subset of Carlson’s texts and emails – limited solely to those communications that Carlson had with Target A.

Here it’s worth noting that the goalposts have been tacitly moved again. Although Carlson started with inflammatory claims that implied prolonged surveillance and malicious intent – to force him off the air – if NSA were, in fact, to have collected even one email or call where an intelligence target was in contact with Carlson, the conspiracy theorists would wave this evidence as proof of a larger conspiracy.

Against this one-scrap-anywhere standard, the only way to categorically disprove the assertion (that NSA has in its databases any communication involving Carlson) would be for NSA to search all of its databases looking for Carlson – and that would amount to improperly targeting him. So, NSA can’t do it.

Fifth, even if NSA did such a search, the results would never satisfy purveyors of disinformation. Why? Because they could argue that the search wasn’t thorough enough, that something was overlooked, that evidence was buried – that, after all, you can’t trust the NSA.

Ultimately, all of this plays into another hallmark of the creeping spread of disinformation campaigns: that the entity in the best position to have access to the facts is inherently distrusted as part of the blossoming conspiracy theory. “So what if there’s external oversight and validation of the process?” the argument would go, “we all know the NSA/ the government/ Congress/ the overseers/ can’t be trusted.” (As an aside, this quickly devolves into the “I do my own research” argument, wherein no one believes anything that counters their beliefs unless they’ve personally done the queries themselves regardless of whether they would have the skill or knowledge to accurately interpret the results.)

Finally, conspiracy theories and disinformation thrive in the culture clash between people unscrupulously willing to bend the truth or to operate in a fact-free climate versus those who approach factual accuracy as a near-scientific task. At the end of his second monologue on the topic, Carlson argued that the United States is becoming a full-blown surveillance state whose power is directed against the kinds of people who see themselves as victims in an American culture war,

Orwellian does not begin to describe the experience. It was like living in China. But we should get used to it. Now that the Biden admin has classified tens of millions of patriotic Americans – the kind who served in the military and fly flags in front of their homes – as potential domestic terrorists, white supremacists, saboteurs, we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of thing.

Intelligence analysts, and intelligence agencies, are nearly always measured in the tone of their assertions, careful to point to the range of uncertainty in what they know and to make clear what is supposition. Disinformation-mongers live in the opposite camp. They sling fact-free assertions that enrage and engage with little care for the integrity of their claims. The goal is to get engagement, and an emotional response, and to advance a narrative. Facts? Meh. They get in the way.

So where does this leave NSA? NSA often gets asked to quantify how many U.S. person communications it collects incidentally in the course of its intelligence gathering. It can’t – because no one has yet identified a way to do that without searching for U.S. persons, which would be improper and intrusive. Until someone identifies a way to do this without intruding on the privacy of U.S. persons, it’s a Catch-22. And where does this leave the rest of us? Waiting for the outrage machine to turn to the next faux-scandal. And me, wondering whether attempting to offer an explainer on these techniques was helpful, knowing that it might only serve to add fuel to a baseless story that should never have been taken seriously to begin with.

Image: Fox News host Tucker Carlson discusses ‘Populism and the Right’ during the National Review Institute’s Ideas Summit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel March 29, 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images